The Right Way to Shoot Full Auto (or, “The Lady in the Hat”)

Yes, that's a firework, and not the result of a space kitten horking up a hairball.

For those of you who haven’t read the “About Us” page, I promised that I’d include my mistakes in here along with the usual tips, advice, and everything else. Well, this is as good a time and place as any to start sharing those bloopers.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m sitting on the beach in Point Pleasant with my wife, waiting for the July 4th fireworks to start. A short distance away, I happen to see a woman sitting in her beach chair. She’s got her SLR, and the Nikon logo’s clearly visible on the neck strap. So I think to myself, “Y’know, I should ask her what settings she’s going to be using tonight.” And since her camera was in the same family as mine, in a manner of speaking, I wouldn’t get lost if she had to guide me through the menus.

Armed with my plan, I trudged across the sand, camera in hand. “Excuse me. What settings did you plan on using for the fireworks tonight?” She looked at me a bit quizzically.

“On the camera. Which settings were you using?”

“Oh, that!” She smiled. “I usually either put it on no flash, or the lady with the hat.”

This conversation already wasn’t quite as informative as I’d hoped, or so I thought. I thanked her for her time, trudged back to my wife and my beach chair, checked my gear, dialed in the settings I planned to use, and settled in. Half an hour later, the fireworks started, and I dutifully snapped away.

Several hours later (I think the locals all decided to use the same back roads to avoid the tourists), I downloaded my photos, browsed, and started to feel more than a bit deflated. You know those beds they used to have in motel rooms where you’d get a “massage” if you dropped in a quarter? My fireworks photos all looked like they’d been made while the camera was sitting on one of those beds.

There were two reasons for this: first of all, I’d ignored my own advice to use a tripod, and shot handheld the whole night, figuring it’d be easier to follow the fireworks as they arced through the sky. It was, but I don’t care if you’ve got a better grip than Joe McNally, if you’re shooting with shutter speeds at or approaching a full second, you’re going to get blur and jiggles. Second, I didn’t realize exactly how much I’d blurred and jiggled; too worried I’d miss a good shot, I never once checked to see how my photos were coming out. All of a sudden, “the lady in the hat” was looking pretty good.

The conventional wisdom among a lot of SLR users – which, like all conventional wisdom, tends to be more convention than wisdom – is that you don’t buy a big, expensive camera just to shoot it in full Auto; that’s what fully automatic compacts are for. Screw the conventional wisdom. Yes, if the camera gives you control over ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, learn and use those controls. But shooting in Automatic can be useful if used right – as a teacher rather than a crutch – and comes in handy if you’re unsure of the controls, or of yourself, in a given shooting situation.

Familiarize yourself with your camera’s quirks in Automatic, since some of them will give you an idea of how you want to change your settings. In low light, for instance, most cameras will default to the brightest aperture available, alongside an ISO boost and a slow shutter speed. Also pay attention to your camera’s Scene modes (“the lady in the hat,” incidentally, is the icon most cameras use for Portrait mode). The most common will be Portrait, Sports, Beach/Snow, a low light setting, Sunset, Landscape, and Child, with each camera adding other options (Macro, Document, et al.) depending on the camera’s capabilities and the whims of the manufacturer. These will also help to familiarize you with the things you do, or don’t, want to do in a given situation.

Your camera, and most photo viewers used on your computer, should give you the option to view the data, known as EXIF data, associated with the photo. At a bare minimum, the file name, date, time, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO should all be listed; many cameras will also display histogram data, resolution, focal length, exposure compensation, and other data.* Make use of that data, since you can not only see what the camera “picked,” but you’re now free to tweak your settings if you and the camera have different ideas about how the scene should look. You can also do this on the fly if you’re not sure of your settings and you want to be in the ballpark with a bit less trial and error; take a quick shot on Auto, and then change either your shutter speed or aperture as needed for a bit more control.

Well, there you have it. I make the mistakes so you don’t have to. Hopefully you’ve learned something from all this. If it’s taught you nothing else, of course, at least take away the value of checking out your shots from time to time, as this will save you vast amounts of money on aspirin later. But also don’t let yourself be intimidated by all the buttons, menu options, and other crap with which the manufacturer has so thoughtfully festooned your camera. In the weeks ahead, we’ll talk more about using the A, S, P, and M modes; meantime, get out there and keep making photos!

*What the EXIF data won’t tell you is some of the other in-camera adjustments made by the scene modes. Some scene modes adjust your camera’s white balance. Many will boost the saturation of one color or another to warm skin tone, bring out the blue in the sky, the green in a landscape, or the red-through-orange part of the spectrum for autumn leaves.

Rule 4: The Photographer in the Sensual World

I can just about taste it (the lettuce, that is, not the turtle).

To start today, let me don my Captain Obvious uniform, right down to the special hat and epaulettes. Let’s begin with a blindingly obvious statement, and then work our way to the somewhat-less-obvious: photography, being a visual medium, relies a lot on the eyes, not only in its consumption, but also in the making of a photo.

Now the less-obvious bit. We spend so much time thinking about the photograph as pure visual that there’s a tendency to forget the other senses play a big part both in making a photo, and also in its eventual perception. You’ve got those other four senses lying around, as it were, so it’d be a shame not to use them just ‘cause there’s a camera in your hand.

Think about all the associations tied in with our senses. They aren’t just a way to interact with and process our environments; they’re a conduit to a vast storehouse of memories. All those tastes, smells, textures, and sounds are also how we interpret and understand the world and what’s in it. When someone looks at a photo – yours or anyone else’s – they’re not just looking; they’re unpacking all the other “stuff” that’s present in the photo.

Now, let’s look at it from the photographer’s point of view. The question becomes how to take all of that stuff – the associations that go with a lifetime’s sensory experience – and convey it in a photo. It’s one thing to snap a photo of, say, a Thanksgiving dinner; it’s quite another to be mindful of it to a degree that you can convey something of it through your photos. How do you take all those sounds, tastes, textures and smells and somehow squeeze them onto a 4”x6” piece of paper?

For practical purposes, it’s hard to get a single photo that’s going to impact all the senses equally. Since we all perceive things differently, one person looking at a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner might be drawn to the texture of the cranberry sauce, while another might be “hearing” one of the guests saying grace over the meal. I’ve mentioned being present in the moment when you take a picture, and here’s another reason to do that: besides the visual, what’s the next thing having the biggest impact on you right then, and how might you incorporate that into the photo? Challenge yourself; how can you convey those non-visual elements of your scene? How do you pick up on the stray bits of conversation, the feel of a linen tablecloth, the taste of the turkey and stuffing, the bouquet of the glass of wine you just drank?

Brian Eno once lamented that too much of music comes from, and is aimed at, the head. It neglects the feet, the heart, and so much else. He said that music should never make the listener ask, “Well, that’s nice, but what’s the rest of me for?” Photography’s like that, too, both for the person viewing your work, and also for you as you’re making the photo. Giving your other senses a space in the photo, even if you just choose one other sense on which to focus for any given scene, adds a dimensionality and depth that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Photography can be a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it shouldn’t starve the rest of you.

Postscript: As I was milling over the ideas for this post, researching, writing, and rewriting, I came across two great articles that I’d like to share with you. The first comes from Sara Healy, whose writing and “story photos” are great prompts for art, writing, and just thinking about creativity. The other comes from Mel and Philip Tulin’s Outdoor Eyes, a ridiculously comprehensive site for outdoorsy types, some of whom may also happen to be photographers. “Seeing With Outdoor Eyes” says some of what I’ve said above plus a whole lot more.

Photo News Roundup, 7/16/11

Huzzah! More News!

A snapshot of this week’s photography news from around the web: links are to the sources’ websites.

New Micro 4/3 lenses, and DxOMark tests the sensor on the Olympus EP-3 (4/3 Rumors)

Kenko-Tokina acquires filter makers Cokin, Pentax unveils a red version of its 645D medium format camera, Toshiba opens quake-resistant factory (Adorama)

The Andy Warhol Museum releases an iPhone app that makes your snaps look like Andy’s legendary silkscreens (Boring Pittsburgh)

Canon raises prices on as-yet unreleased lenses, and Holga Direct releases a Canon-mount lens that promises to make the photos taken by your thousand-dollar camera look as though they were done on cheap plastic by a hipster with questionable facial hair (Canon Rumors)

Leica to enter EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) fray? And since rangefinders (the company’s bread and butter since the 1920’s) are already mirrorless, isn’t that a bit redundant? Also, Panasonic DMC G3 review posted (DPReview)

Leica M9-P now in stock in the States, Moscow’s Leica store robbed (Leica Rumors)

Nikon issues service advisory due to overheating issues with Coolpix L23, also announces 40mm 2.8 DX Macro lens (NikonRumors)

RED’s EPIC-M in stock, EPIC-X still delayed due to the earthquake in Japan (Photo Rumors)

Rolling Stone has an exclusive preview of the upcoming limited edition book of photographer Masayoshi Sukita’s photos of David Bowie, titled Speed of Life.

Possible first look at the upcoming NEX-7? Looks photoshopped, but you never know… (Sony Alpha Rumors)

Ansel Adams and Lemon Cake

Public Domain: Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved my Aunt Olga’s lemon cake. It’s one of those things that crop up on the occasional birthday or special occasion, and it tastes like nothing else in the world. Well, one time I asked for, and was lucky enough to get, the recipe for that lemon cake. I’ve tried making it a few times over the years, and while it’s been competent (tasted fine, didn’t have the consistency of, say, the stuffing from a seat cushion), it wasn’t anything like the original.

Fast-forward a few years. Not long ago, I read an article about a person, or maybe a group of people, that organizes photo tours to the places where Ansel Adams made some of his best-known photographs. People from the world over dutifully trudge to the same parks and vistas that Adams so lovingly, and expertly, documented, waiting for exactly the same light, some even using the same kinds of cameras used by the Master himself. I’m sure their photos were competent (exposed well, didn’t look like the aftermath of an all-night bender), but they weren’t anything like the original.

These two seemingly-disparate things have more in common than you might think.

Some people, whether they’re musicians, painters, chefs or photographers, jealously guard their technique. They realize they have something unique, and I think on some level, they feel that if they share what went into that “something,” some of its uniqueness is somehow stripped away or diminished. They may be perfectly good at what they do, but they’re missing the one thing that makes a good craftsman great: they don’t share their secrets.

A great cook can teach you every last one of their recipes and techniques, and a great photographer can be willing to show you every last step in their process, from the framing of a shot, to the settings used, to their developing/postproduction process. They’ll get their results; you, probably, will not. Some of this has to do with the years of experience that go into becoming an expert. *

Some of it, though – and a big part of the reason that those who share, do – is that knowing someone else’s process, their recipes, if you will, is only a starting point. You can become competent following someone else’s lead, but the only way to become great (or get near great’s ZIP code) is to use those teachings as a point of departure in developing your own voice. Just the same as great cooking stems from the taste of an individual chef (any two people can make pesto, for instance, using the same ingredients, but taste and experience will generally mean different proportions of each), great photography comes from seeing the world as only you do, and conveying that vision to someone else.

So I’ll still make Aunt Olga’s lemon cake from time to time, and one of these days, if the mood strikes, I may even schlep my camera and myself to the Grand Tetons. But the bigger challenge, not just for me, but for anyone else who picks up a camera – whether they realize it or not – is moving beyond someone else’s way of doing things, and finding your own.

*This is also one very big reason that the recently discovered Adams negatives were regarded not to be worth quite as much as their discoverer had hoped. It wasn’t just Adams’ composition that made those photos; his developing process (not just the chemical part of it, but other aspects, like the way he dodged and burned his prints) played as much of a part in the photos’ final appearance, and without that individual touch, the negatives lose a good deal of their impact.

Beyond the Manual

One way or another, you'll get there.

If you’ve been paying attention (cue Sister Mary Elephant), you know by now that you should be reading the manual. But what do you do if your camera comes without a manual (oh, the joys of buying the floor model), or if the manual’s better suited as a doorstop than a source of quick, coherent instructions? Nearly every DSLR has a book or twelve written on its care and use, and there are also plenty of options to choose from if you’re shooting with a compact or bridge camera.*

I’ll take the Nikon D7000 as my example, since that’s my primary camera. The instruction manual runs to a dense, information-packed 325 pages. Just how information-packed? Well, I’m glad you asked. “Basic Photography and Playback” — you know, the part where you actually get to turning on the camera and making a photograph — starts on page 35.

I’m not knocking the instruction manual. However, sometimes you want something that lays out your options with a nod or two toward concision, and that’s where your “aftermarket” options come in. In no particular order, some of those options, with commentary:

Nikon D7000 Digital Field Guide by J. Dennis Thomas (Wiley): I bought this book for one simple reason: at the time, it was the only thing available on the D7000. I was hoping for something that’d familiarize me with the camera before I bought it, and it delivered pretty well in that regard. True to its name, it’s a field guide; a lot of information’s seriously condensed, and some of it elided. It’s also something you can read in a sitting or two if you have a mind to, or just toss in a camera bag for quick reference. It isn’t as exhaustive as some of the other options listed below, but it’s good in a pinch (and I’ve had my share of pinches).

Nikon D7000: From Snapshots to Great Shots by John Bartdorff (Peachpit Press): Like other books in the From Snapshots to Great Shots series, this is a nice balance of technical information and technique. There are exercises and detailed examples of how to get certain types and styles of shots. This book is particularly good for photographers with less experience for the simple fact that, like photography itself, it’s about more than just the camera.

David Busch’s Nikon D7000 Guide to Digital SLR Photography by David Busch (Course Technology PTR): The bad news: if you’re looking for concise, look elsewhere. The good news: just about everything else you’d think to look for, and a few things you wouldn’t, are here. At 560 pages, this dwarfs the instruction manual. However, chapters devoted to lenses, DSLR movies, and peripheral technologies give this book a depth to match its considerable heft. Recommended for all levels of photographers. For the impatient, there’s also David Busch’s Compact Field Guide for the Nikon D7000 (Course Technology PTR), which condenses its bigger brother down to its bare essentials.

Speaking of patience, maybe someday I will muster enough of it to figure out what’s “expanded” in Nikon D7000 (The Expanded Guide), by Jon Sparks (Ammonite). Unlike Busch’s book, it doesn’t venture much beyond the traditional camera guide; nor does it venture much beyond the manual, though it’s more readable (but that isn’t saying much given the writing in the average instruction manual, which is tantamount to typesetting something with Ambien). Not quite a waste of money, but nothing to make it stand out in a crowd, either.

Nikon D7000 For Dummies by Julie Adair King (For Dummies/Wiley): I have to confess that I have a bit of an issue with the structure of the Dummies/Idiots/Everything genre of books. To me, all the little icons and cautions and pull quotes and sidebars and lists are a bit like getting to a magazine rack after Godzilla’s been through town. The information is there, but you have to go over quite a number of speedbumps to get to what you’re looking for. My gripe with this book isn’t with Ms. King or her writing; both prove to be adequate to the task of teaching you how to use your D7000. Maybe I’m too easily distracted; if you’re not, this could very well work for you.

Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000 Multimedia Workshop (Lark Books): There’s probably a good reason that these are put out anonymously. I got lucky and found one of these out of its shrink-wrap at Barnes and Noble, so I thumbed through the “book” portion. It has nothing at all to do with the D7000, or any other camera, specifically. Just some boilerplate writing on settings and exposure that you’d find in any book that’s an introduction to photography technique, only not done quite as well. The “Nikon D7000 Quick Reference Wallet Card” is only marginally useful, and one of the DVD’s is about as specific to the camera as the book is. Out of sheer curiousity, I ferretted out another open copy, this time for a Sony SLR. Same booklet, same nonspecific DVD, same half-assed wallet card. In short, you’re paying for one DVD that might be remotely relevant to your camera, bundled with a bunch of filler. If you want to learn visually, most camera companies have DVDs for their cameras, and I’m guessing they’re put together with more care than the Multimedia Workshop Lark is offering. If someone you know owns this, borrow it; otherwise, pass on it.

Lest anyone think I dislike the Magic Lantern series as a whole, however, that’s far from the case. The full-on guidebooks, the ones that actually explain the camera’s settings and functions, and that actually come with an author’s name on the cover, are very good. Case in point would be Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000
(Pixiq Books), authored by Simon Stafford. This is the polar opposite of the Multimedia Workshop, in that it’s a book that gets very deep into the camera’s functionality, in a style that’s readable and accessible. Worth having.

The field, therefore, tends to divide into two categories: there are some titles out there that, at least to this reader, don’t seem all that useful; then there’s a batch that contains quite a bit of useful information, with a lot of overlap between one book and the next. What sets each apart is the author’s approach and teaching method. Find the one that works for you, and roll with it. Are these quite as exhaustive as the owner’s manual? Mostly not, but neither are they as exhausting. If you’ve got to choose between leaving a couple of bits out (or perhaps exploring them in less detail) but reading the darn thing, versus having every conceivable piece of information at your fingertips but letting it languish at the bottom of your camera bag, the choice is pretty obvious.

*Of the myriad options available for compacts, one of my personal favorites is Rick Sammon’s Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter: Get Professional Quality Photos with Your Compact Camera
(Wiley). See also some of Tom Ang’s many books on photography (generally published by DK); he’s one of the few writers out there who doesn’t seem allergic/averse to showing the average photographer how to put a camera’s automatic/scene modes to good use.

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is an employee of John Wiley & Sons, publisher of three of the aforementioned books.

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!

A Word About Our “Sponsors”

This space for rent, apparently...

Frequent visitors to The First 10,000 (both of you) have no doubt noticed that a chunk of the right-hand side of the blog was taken up by a series of advertising blocks that have been sitting vacant for the last few weeks. There were reasons for this.

For one thing, I was, and remain, ambivalent about having a blog that’s supported by commercial advertising, since having, say, Nikon as a sponsor could cause people to question my motivation and objectivity if I have something to say about their product.

For another, there was also no way to disable the advertising links. Since I didn’t want that space to go to waste, I’ve reached out to a handful of nonprofit organizations and charities whose work either intersects with, or is directly related to, photography. The space is a donation of sorts; it wasn’t paid for by the organizations, and so probably isn’t “advertising” as such. I simply wanted to draw attention to organizations that are doing good work, and I hope that you’ll visit their sites to find out what they’re all about.

From time to time, I’ll be “featuring” organizations, giving them a bit larger presence on the site, and telling you a bit more about them. You’ll find more information on this month’s featured organization, HeARTs Speak, next week, and in the near future, I hope to have a page assembled that brings attention to these organizations and the work they’re doing.  In the meantime, visit, volunteer, and if you know of other organizations that cover similar ground, please contact me.

Special thanks to Amanda Shoemaker of ShutterMission, Kim Davidson of Idealist, Lisa Prince Fishler of HeARTs Speak, Burk Jackson of Creative Cares, and Tonee Lawrence of Operation: Love ReUnited for their assistance and kind permission to feature their organizations.

The Mindful Photographer, Part 2

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness, tells a story about eating a tangerine with a friend. To paraphrase: the friend was wolfing down the tangerine, not giving much thought to the simple act of eating a tangerine. Thây goes on to say that if you’re not eating the tangerine mindfully–thinking only of eating the tangerine as you eat it–then you’re not eating the tangerine. You’re ingesting whatever else is “on your plate” at the time. So you could be eating The Real Housewives of Azerbaijan, or drinking rush-hour traffic.

The same thing applies to photography. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some kind of Zen master. I’ve got monkey mind that’d do Curious George proud. I’d love to say that every time I leave my apartment with my camera, there’s an immediate and intense level of focus (that’s me, not the camera) on nothing but the myriad of sights around me, but I wouldn’t even fool myself saying that. It usually goes a bit more like this:

“Okay, that chipmunk’s a bit overexposed. Do I go with a faster shutter speed, or just use exposure compensation? Tweak the shutter speed. Nope. Still overdone. Overdone? I’m hungry, that’s what it is. Turkish? Is that Turkish place still – what, they serve pizza now? Okay, Greek?”

I’ll spare you the other 3,257 steps in the process. Suffice to say, I’m surprised that some of my flora and fauna don’t come out looking like kebabs, or newspapers, or whatever other digression wanders across my mind at any given time.

Speaking of digressions, let’s get back on topic. It isn’t just the distractions of everyday life. Sometimes, paradoxically, photography itself can be the distraction in your photography. If your last session didn’t go well – you were distracted, you couldn’t find anything that caught your eye, everything came out blurry, your batteries ran out in mid-shoot – it can be very easy to carry those frustrations into your next shoot. This doesn’t mean that you’re a lousy photographer; it means you’re a human being. We all do it. Try, though, to be mindful of it, and to cut it out when you find yourself doing it; it’s one thing to be diligent about avoiding the same mistakes, but it’s another to repeat them, or trade them for new ones, because you obsess over them.

And, strange as it may seem, your photos will look different if all you’re doing is paying attention to where you are and what you’re shooting. Being mentally absent from the process means you’ll also be absent from the end result; your photos could’ve been taken by anyone, with no particular skill or attention. But being present for your photos, and especially for your subjects (whether or not they’re human), means having more of yourself – your individuality, your unique “voice” – present in your photos. Stop shooting last night’s argument, tomorrow’s dinner date, the phone bill, or your uncomfortable shoes, and just be fully where you are in that moment.

Adapted from my other/earlier blog, A Slight Delay.

A Quick Guide to Candid Photography

Come to think of it, don't go sneaking up behind people and popping paper bags, either.

Want to kill the mood and momentum at a party? Well, for starters, you could put Stockhausen on the stereo. Or you could walk around with your camera, and every time you see people in conversation, laughing, popping coconut shrimp into their mouths, or just standing pensively by the punch bowl, say, “Say cheese!” And of course, if the party’s noisy enough, you may find yourself saying it loudly and often enough (to the same person, no less) that people are shooting you uncomfortable glances. Capturing a smile on camera is one thing… capturing a rictus of surprise and displeasure that’s better suited to a Victorian death mask? Well, let’s just say those won’t be keepers.

The candid photograph is the antithesis of the forced or posed photo. What you’re doing instead is observing, waiting for the right time to get the right shot. Henri Cartier-Bresson (yes, him again) called it the “decisive moment,” that split second when a series of seemingly random things (people, their activities, their surroundings) converge at one photogenic point in time. As he put it to an interviewer, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

While we can pose our subjects, in effect creating those moments, the end result isn’t going to have the same panache or spontaneity as it would if we caught it on the fly. And really, Cartier-Bresson was far from being the only practitioner of spontaneous photography. Robert Frank, Robert Doisneu, Arthur Fellig (better known as Weegee) and a host of others have proven that some of the best photography comes from being on the periphery of the action, rather than inserting one’s self in the middle of it all.

As befits a style that’s rooted in spontaneity and simplicity, the techniques for good candids are uncomplicated.

  • Be unobtrusive: one more reason to always have your camera: the more often people, whether they’re in your family or in your neighborhood, see you with your gear, the more they get used to it and the less they think of it. You don’t have to hide in a duck blind to get good candids, you just have to blend in enough that your subjects aren’t self-conscious about the camera.
  • Travel light. A small camera helps, since you’ll look more like a tourist than a photographer. If you’re going to use an SLR, prime lenses help keep your kit light; barring that, use a smallish zoom. Likewise, carry your gear in something that doesn’t scream, “LOOK AT ALL MY EQUIPMENT!”
  • Shoot from the hip. If you’re using a lens that covers various focal lengths, there are two different ways to go; either to the “wide” end (18-24mm) to catch as much of the scene as possible, or “normal”* (40-50mm), which captures less breadth, but more detail. If you’re not going to be keeping an eye on your viewfinder or LCD, shoot multiples, since you’ll improve your chances of getting something worth keeping.
  • Check settings, making sure not only that your ISO/shutter/aperture are appropriate to where and what you’re shooting, but also that your camera’s onboard flash is turned off, and the camera’s sounds are either muted or quieted (you don’t need the autofocus beep, or the “shutter” sound that some manufacturers add to let you know that you have, in fact, taken a picture). If your camera has a quiet mode, use it.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings, not only for the scenery, but also for safety. If you’re getting nasty looks or a bad vibe, get the heck outta Dodge.
  • Get shots of people doing things. Whether they’re gutting fish, busking, talking and laughing, or even just reading, people look the most natural when they’re just in their element, being themselves and doing their own thing.
  • You’re trying to capture the essence of the moment, not prettify it. Resist the urge to start rearranging things. If something in the scene doesn’t work – the lighting’s “off,” the background’s distracting, the level of excitement isn’t what you’d like – move along.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also pause for a second to address the ethics of candid photography. For starters, be honest (they’re not called “Candids” for nothing). It’s one thing to blend in and be stealthy, but it’s something else altogether to be flat-out dishonest if someone asks what you’re doing. On a related note, don’t stalk people. Be extra careful shooting kids, or even shooting around them. If you’re not sure about your subject, regardless of age or circumstances, ask permission, and honor whatever answer you get. Be aware of local customs and attitudes; if you’re somewhere very unfamiliar, travel with someone who knows the lay of the land and can not only advise you, but also make introductions if that’d be helpful. Most of all, don’t be “That creep with the camera.”

To make photos that get attention, sometimes the last thing you want or need to do is to draw attention to yourself. Let your vision shine through in your photos, but be mindful of the fact that sometimes, the harder you work to get the scene to conform to what you’d like it to be, your photos end up being more about you than they are about what you’re photographing. Let the events and people be what they will; be present, observe, and let the pics fall where they may.

*A “Normal Lens” is called that because its field of vision closely approximates what the human eye sees. This is about 40mm on a 35mm (or Full Frame) camera. 50mm lenses also tend to be lumped into this category. On an APS-C camera (a.k.a. a “cropped sensor,” because its sensor size is smaller than a frame of 35mm film), your lens behaves as though it’s got a magnification factor of about 1.5 times (Nikon, Pentax, Sony) or 1.6 times (Canon), so 28mm acts like 40mm, and 35mm acts closer to 5omm. This is great at the “long” end of a telephoto (at 300mm, you’re getting what amounts to 450mm), but it’s a pain in the ass if you’re trying to shoot wide-angle, since 18mm (where most kit lenses, and even some of the more expensive ones, start) is effectively 24mm, which is wide, but not that wide. On the off chance that this all sounds like gobbledeygook and your head’s starting to hurt, the easiest things to do would be either a: go to your local camera shop, try out the lenses, and see what works for you, or b: try your kit lens at different focal lengths, and get used to what each does to your photos. I’ll be covering lenses in a later post.

Rule 3: RTFM

You're being watched.

For the handful of you unfamiliar with the acronym, RTFM means, “Read The F’ing Manual.” Tech support people use the term pretty often, especially when they get a call (“How do I turn this thing on?”) that could be solved within seconds had the caller bothered to even skim the documentation that came with the product. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, what your level of experience is, or how you plan to use it, RTFM.

Some cameras are relatively self-explanatory, but others, like bridge cameras and SLRs,offer a plethora of buttons, controls, and menu options that are anything but self-explanatory. Some things you can teach yourself through trial and error. Sometimes, though, whether because of your own limitations (and I don’t just mean the limits of your knowledge; patience and time, also, are finite) or those of your gear, it’s best to know how to make use of the settings. Taking the time before you start putting a camera to heavy use means less time spent in the field fiddling with settings (and cussin’) trying to figure out how to make something happen.

There’s another good reason to RTFM: Sometimes it’ll help you to push at the limits of a camera’s capabilities (especially if, like a camera phone, those capabilities were pretty limited to start with); other times, they’ll give you a suitable workaround for the times you’ve gone past them. I’d venture to say that I don’t use most of my automaic compact’s scene modes, but some of them (macro mode, for instance) I use very frequently, and a few of the others (like the Sport mode, which on my Kodak boosts ISO and tries for the fastest shutter speed practical for the lighting conditions) have proved invaluable at the times I’ve needed them.

And let’s say you’ve got a system camera. While there’s nothing wrong with shooting in Automatic (and God knows I’ll get flamed for saying that), the point to having a camera with all those controls isn’t so you can compare notes with other camera owners about how much you spent. It’s to give you creative options and opportunites you would not otherwise have had. Navigating that maze of buttons and menu options can sometimes be daunting for even a seasoned user; if you’re still a greenhorn, there’s a pretty significant temptation to just say the hell with it and pick a scene mode. Don’t. RTFM.

In another post, we’ll be covering how and when to put your Auto and Scene modes to best use. For now, though, regardless of whether you plan on working your way up to full Manual, or you’d rather just put it on full Auto, know your camera. Know its limitations, its capabilities, and how best to use both. Like learning anything else in photography, it can be as brief as you’d like, or something you revisit and refine for a lifetime. Done correctly, though, it’s not only the camera that’s put to better use, it’s your talent.

Photo News Roundup, 7/9/11

Material 3 (2010)

Your weekly dose of photography-related news kibble from around the web. Links go to sources’ websites:

Olympus scaling back or abandoning 4/3 SLR system in favor of Micro 4/3? Panasonic Japan announces new Lumix Phone — it’s not Apple, and has built-in optical stabilization. What’s not to love? (43Rumors)

Travel Photography Invitational 2011 (two days left to enter); new wide-angles from Tokina, new “bullet cam” from Rollei, new compacts announced by GE, mirrorless systems rumored from Fuji, ESA builds billion-megapixel (!) camera (Adorama)

Photojojo introduces Canon mount for iPhone (all together now: “WHY?”), while Canon patents a three-layer sensor system similar to Sigma’s Foveon sensor — here’s hoping that, unlike Sigma, they don’t try to pass off a 15-megapixel sensor as 45 megapixels. (Canon Rumors)

A “Caveat Emptor” that anyone concerned about their intellectual property rights should read before using Google Plus (Going Pro)

2011 Oskar Barnack Award winners announced; new video out from renowned street photographer Eric Kim that’s a must-see (Leica Rumors)

Nik Software-sponsored portraiture contest (

Photojojo likewise introduces Nikon mount for iPhone (again: why?); rumors of updated Nikkor lenses, and the rebirth of the Nikonos underwater camera (Nikon Rumors)

Oxfam and the European Journalism Centre launch the third round of Cl!ck About It, a photo contest that aims to show, in photos, the impact that Oxfam’s programs have (Oxfam, et. al.)

Within the Frame author/photographer David duChemin’s Photographically Speaking due in October (Pixelated Image)

Masaya Maeda, head of Canon’s camera division, interviewed; says production is back to pre-quake levels, slyly hints that Canon may be introducing its own mirrorless system (Reuters)

DxOMark data out for NEX-C3, possible A-Mount mirrorless compact in the works, NEX-7 touted as possible “Killer” of Fuji X-100 (my prediction? If quality’s the same as the NEX cameras we’ve seen so far, it retains the retro look that everybody loves about the Fuji, and adds interchangeable lenses while keeping prices reasonable, the X-100 stops looking quite so attractive); reviews up for several Sony lenses (Sony Alpha Rumors)

Former Yahoo engineer says he’s got the Flickr killer; if you’ve ever been annoyed — or infuriated — with Flickr, you’ll understand the appeal (Steve’s Digicams, but I’d also suggest you check out the engineer’s Kickstarter page, with which I am unaffiliated, for additional info)